It’s been a busy week for Cyril Ramaphosa, the affable President of South Africa. He called on his 60 million compatriots to remember Nelson Mandela’s legacy, spoke at an investment forum in ‘Africa’s richest square mile’ and returned generous tributes to a senior member of the ruling African National Congress.
None of this will have stretched the veteran politician, who was imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid regime and was once considered Mandela’s heir. But a bit of news might: Ramaphosa was threatened last week with a subpoena by a public watchdog investigating a scandal that could pose a serious threat to his presidency.
“He was pushed into a corner. It’s a grenade thrown in his political career,” said South African political analyst and author Ralph Mathekga.
Astonishing details of what local media have called “Farmgate” have leaked over the months, dragging the president into a plot that could be pulled straight from one of the gripping and gritty crime TV series popular in the country.
The story begins with a criminal complaint filed by a disgruntled former South African intelligence chief at a Johannesburg police station detailing the theft two years ago of $4 million in cash from a game and meat farm. cattle owned by Ramaphosa in Limpopo province, a two-hour’ drive north from his residence in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the administrative capital.
The revelation of the hoarding of a huge sum of foreign currency on the President’s ranch was just the beginning. For reasons no one can explain, the money was hidden in sofas. Instead of reporting the theft to the police, officers from the Presidential Protection Force were reportedly dispatched to find the missing money.
After following the trail in various parts of South Africa and neighboring Namibia, the president’s men found and questioned the thieves, but then allegedly paid them to keep quiet. A domestic worker on the farm is said to have also received money in exchange for her silence.
So far, Ramaphosa has admitted the theft took place, but said the money was the legitimate proceeds of a valuable livestock auction and he had done nothing wrong. After missing several deadlines and the threat of a subpoena, he answered Friday 31 questions posed by the Office of the Protector of the citizen, mandated by the Constitution.
“It was not a case of the president taking long to answer questions, it was just a case of him having a very busy schedule where he had a number of priorities to meet. Unfortunately, we didn’t have couldn’t attend this one in time,” a spokesperson told reporters.
Game farming is a big business in South Africa and can generate significant income. But trade experts say it’s rare for anyone to keep cash for fear of attracting violent thieves. Others suggest the money was to be distributed among ANC cadres to win support – an illegal but common practice.
The president’s supporters say he is the victim of a smear campaign ahead of a likely brutal competition to win a second term as ANC president in December at a party conference. This would allow Ramaphosa to win a second term as President of South Africa in the 2024 elections. As the incumbent president and one of the few ANC politicians with popular appeal, he is the favorite .
But the damage caused by the Farmgate scandal is considerable. Ramaphosa was elected with a mandate to repair the deep damage done to South African institutions and economy by Jacob Zuma, whose nine-year rule ended amid allegations of systematic corruption and mismanagement in 2018 This means taking on legion and unscrupulous enemies.
Ramaphosa’s ability to do so is seriously compromised by any suspicion that he has committed potentially serious breaches of the law and official codes of conduct. These could include non-disclosure of a crime, misuse of public funds, money laundering, tax evasion and more.
Judith February, director of Freedom Under Law, an NGO working to uphold democratic values and the rule of law in South Africa, said that so far only one side of the Farmgate story had been heard. – but that was a problem in itself.
Despite ignoring the Ombudsman for weeks, Ramaphosa was prepared to appear before ANC officials to explain himself.
“It’s very hard to say what he did wrong. He seems more eager to appease the party than to be transparent with the people. So it looks like an amateur cover-up…and it has serious consequences for the integrity of our institutions,” February said.
The scandal comes at a bad time for Ramaphosa. With soaring unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and anemic growth, even supporters admit his first term was disappointing. Covid, flooding and the war in Ukraine haven’t helped, nor has fierce resistance from Zuma loyalists, who caused such unrest last year that Ramaphosa called it an “insurgency”.
The Farmgate scandal fueled wider disenchantment with the ANC and a political system that kept the party in power for 28 years.
Ramaphosa’s tendency to avoid conflict and seek consensus, seen as a great strength when he was a younger politician, may now be a weakness. A judicial corruption probe under Zuma recently criticized Ramaphosa for not acting on corruption or speaking out when he was vice president from 2014 to 2018.
“In the South African political system, the ability to build complex coalitions is key to winning high-level positions and Ramaphosa is very good at it,” said Anthony Butler, professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town. and biographer of the president. “But the crisis South Africa finds itself in right now doesn’t need coalitions, it needs decisions. Just saying the right things to different audiences just makes people feel like [Ramaphosa] cannot chart a course forward.
Nationwide blackouts of up to 12 hours a day since mid-July and a series of deadly pub shootings have reinforced feelings that the president is ineffective, if not inadequate.
In Diepsloot, a poor township outside Johannesburg where tens of thousands of people live crammed into tin houses or cramped one-room cement houses, feelings were mixed. Few have seen their lives improve in recent years, and many say their situation has deteriorated.
Charity Modise voted for Ramaphosa in 2018 and said she still believed the president was honest.
“He’s a good and pious man. But he didn’t do anything for us. Maybe he’s too careful with his friends and his stuff,” she said, carrying a bag of small homemade fried breads at a taxi stand to sell it.
There were similar sentiments in Nomzamo near Soweto, where the deadliest of recent pub shootings took place. Fifteen drinkers were gunned down on a Saturday night by suspected gang members, sparking calls for greater regulation and better policing in a country awash with guns.
“It’s only getting worse. Life is too hard. We don’t have electricity. There are a lot of people. Maybe 15% of the people here have a job. Nobody really works,” said Thabiso Letlojane, 31.
Gladys Nkona, 42, accused the ANC. “The government is doing nothing. They don’t care about the poor. For them, it’s just lining their own pockets,” she said.
The president has never hidden his wealth, estimated at $700 million, and has called critics racist and hypocritical. But his fortune, earned during a decade away from politics after being passed over as successor when Mandela left the presidency in 1999, has at times proved a weakness. Ten years ago, police shot dead 34 striking miners from a company he was involved in.
Ramaphosa’s enthusiasm for herding high-value animals, including Ankole cattle, also drew criticism. In 2012, he apologized for bidding more than $1 million for a buffalo and an Ankole calf at an auction in a country where millions live in dire poverty, but has by elsewhere dismissed criticism of its commercial success as “crass and racist”.
Ten days ago, Ramaphosa promised an announcement of reforms to end the electricity crisis, but none have been announced, raising suspicions that he has been unable to convince the seniors ANC officials that the party’s deep political and economic involvement in the coal industry should at least be reduced. .
“There doesn’t seem to be any urgency because it’s the voters within the party that he’s trying to get on board and there are people who are holding on now. [the Farmgate scandal] above his head,” February said.
The ANC has already lost power in many towns and in the Western Cape province. In local elections last year, the ruling party’s vote share fell to 46%, although it generally does better in national polls.
Many analysts predict that the party will lose its majority in the next general election or by 2029, whether or not Ramaphosa succeeds in pushing through reforms that could boost economic growth or simply restore reliable power sources. This would usher in a new era of coalition politics, with a radical left-wing populist party as the most obvious partner for the ANC.
After a chaotic debate last month, Ramaphosa told lawmakers Farmgate was under investigation and “the law must be allowed to take its course”.
“Some views [expressed] came to advise me, and still others were peppered with insults. I will not respond to insults, but will say that the…suggestions that have been made raise points that I will consider.
The president then pushed back on questions about the theft at a press conference. When it was over, he turned to an assistant and asked, “Can I go home now?”